Think your passion for the arts can’t lead to a successful career? English Lit grad Skye Barker Maa has a story for you.
When Skye Barker Maa enrolled at Metropolitan State University of Denver, she was already “knee-deep in corporate America,” as she describes it. The work certainly wasn’t a passion, but it afforded her the opportunity to dabble in something she had always been quite fond of: the arts.
“I decided since I was paying for (school) and I already had a career track that I should do something I loved,” Barker Maa said. “And I loved the arts. But it never occurred to me that I would be able to translate it into a career.”
So she earned her degree in English Literature in 1995 and continued comfortably down a promising career path in corporate sales. It wasn’t until years later that her professional trajectory took an unexpected turn. That change in direction led to the creation of half a dozen arts-related businesses and a new aviation-themed bar, set to open in Aurora’s Stanley Marketplace in September.
The journey from English Literature to entrepreneurship began in 2012, when Barker Maa was on the hunt for a music school for her 3-year-old son, which proved to be elusive.
“I really wanted an actual school,” she said. “I wanted to move beyond the living-room piano lesson. I wanted him to have this robust experience where he saw other kids practicing and performing and he was interacting with other instruments and really experiencing it through all of his senses. I wanted field trips and social interactions and performance opportunities.”
Ultimately, when she couldn’t find that, she decided to make it herself.
Barker Maa took to the streets posting fliers for other prospective students. She scouted her old college campus, soliciting potential music teachers. When she finally had a few of each, she opened up a space in her basement.
“I accidentally started a music school in my zeal to find a piano teacher for my son,” she said.
But that “accident” blossomed into something much bigger. Seven months into the project, Barker Maa’s homegrown music school grew to include 15 teachers and nearly 150 students and was operating six days a week. Before long, she was running a full-blown business doing something she loved.
To say her success expanded from there is an understatement. By 2018, the school, now officially titled Neighborhood Music & Theatre, included a year-round children’s theatre program and had claimed a space in the Stanley Marketplace.
Then, when 2020 brought a global pandemic that decimated local economies and gutted many independent businesses, something miraculous happened. Neighborhood Music didn’t just survive; it thrived.
“We were one of the only theatre companies that was in person during Covid,” Barker Maa said of the experience. She credits the Stanley Marketplace for being generous with its space, allowing Barker Maa to use what she needed to host Covid-safe lessons.
In the year that followed, Barker Maa created the Factory Five Five arts collective, a community theatre program that produces plays and musicals and also includes a film school. Her other businesses include Factory Fashion Academy and Bizarre Café, an immersive theatre company.
Barker Maa’s latest endeavor is Sky Bar, a Pan Am-themed cocktail lounge at the Stanley Marketplace slated to debut next month. Located on the third floor of the marketplace in a former aviation manufacturing facility, the bar will be an immersive experience that transports guests back in time to a chic early-20th-century airport lounge.
“You’ll have a boarding pass and a boarding time,” Barker Maa said. “You can have preflight cocktails. Then you’ll take our elevator up to the ‘gangway’ and move into the bar. Drinks will be served on a bar cart. We’ll have cocktail nuts and snacks.”
The idea was a collaboration with fellow MSU Denver graduate and Denver fashionista Brandi Shigley.
“It started as a conversation about creating some additional revenue streams that are integrated with our experience so that we can fund all this different creative stuff that we want to do,” Barker Maa explained.
She didn’t just manage to sustain her own passion in the midst of a global pandemic; she found a way to help others do it too.
“Having a little bit of cushion by being able to sell cocktails and have these other places for (the artists) to work has really provided a good platform for us to be able to do what we really want to do, which is produce art,” Barker Maa said.
Despite there being a time when she couldn’t imagine creating a sustainable career in the arts, Barker Maa doesn’t see it that way anymore.
“I think it is a viable career path,” she said. “It requires a level of fearlessness, but I would encourage everyone to be a little bit fearless and give it a shot.”